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Memphis Police Go Long on Car Seizures

In 2021, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis came forward with the city’s plan to combat growing incidents of reckless driving and drag racing. Her solution: vehicle seizures. Police departments around the country have long used asset forfeiture laws to seize property believed to be associated with criminal activity, a tactic intended to deprive lawbreakers of ill-gotten gains, deter future crimes, and, along the way, provide a lucrative revenue source for police departments, reports the New York Times. In Memphis, officials were explicit about the deterrent upsides they saw in the tactic. Mayor Jim Strickland strongly supported the seizure policy and even proposed destroying cars used by drag racers and other reckless drivers. “I don’t care if they serve a day in jail,” he said last year. “Let me get their cars, and then once a month we’ll line them all up, maybe at the old fairgrounds, Liberty Park, and just smash them.”

The elite street crime unit involved in the death of Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7, known as the Scorpion unit, was among several law enforcement teams in the city making widespread use of vehicle seizures. Some of the people affected by the seizures had not been convicted of any crime, and defense lawyers said they disproportionately affected low-income residents and people of color. In Memphis, as in many cities, revenues from such impound and forfeiture fees are returned to support policing activities, becoming a regular source of revenue. Memphis has not disclosed how much money it generated for the hundreds of vehicles that were forfeited. The city reported seizing some $1.7 million in cash last year, winning forfeiture of nearly $1.3 million. This income is most often being generated by the city’s poorest residents, defense lawyers said. “It’s unfair to a lot of the poorer citizens in Memphis,” said Arthur Horne, who has represented such clients. “It’s a huge tax.” However, according to Chief Davis vehicle seizures have never been a priority in the city’s overall crime-fighting strategy, Chief Davis said that any money gained from forfeitures was not essential to police operations. “We haven’t put a high level of priority on asset forfeiture here in Memphis,” she said. “We put more of a priority on violent crime, reducing violent crime.” Some of the more than 700 vehicles seized last year in Memphis were taken from people who were ultimately found guilty of serious criminal charges. But other residents reported that they were compelled to pay large fees to recover their vehicles even when they had not been convicted of any crime.


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